By Don Klein
Here we are again celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and again I have that deep down feeling that there is somehow an injustice being imposed on history and all of us. I get this feeling every January when everyone is being reminded of King and no one mentions the giant of the last century, FDR.
I have no reason to suggest that Reverend King does not deserve national recognition or that his deeds were not worthy of being commemorated by observing his birthday as a national holiday.
But I do feel that giving tribute to the civil rights leader while ignoring the greatest American president of our time is not fair and very close to an abomination, especially since both men were born in January and both were giants in their time.
Thinking about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States, the man who served as head of the nation longer than any other in the past or ever will in the future, I get nostalgic. He was elected to a record four terms and held the reins of government for 4,422 days, longer by far than any other man.
He took office in 1933 and died four months into his fourth term in 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end. His funeral was attended by all the world leaders of the time, and if you were alive at the time, as I was, you will never forget it.
I give him no credit for length of service. I never think of him as the political iron man equivalent of Cal Ripken. I remember him for his leadership, the immensity of his interests and the variety of his work. He was as Beethoven was to music; Einstein to mathematics; and Shakespeare to literature.
He took us beyond the ordinary. He had uncommon vision. He established new norms. He broke boundaries.
He was creative in national policies, he charmed his political enemies, roused world leaders to great levels while being inspirational to the masses of struggling Americans in bad times and the savior of millions of subjugated Europeans during the worst period in world history.
FDR, as he was readily known by headline writers and the man and woman on the street, was the man who faced the worst economic travail in US history when he took office in 1933. He vowed to put the nation back on its feet with a range of programs which protected the ordinary citizen and brought reasonable controls to a reluctant American business community.
He was the first president I was aware of as a child and when he spoke to the country on his patented radio “fireside chats” (there was no television in those days) millions sat silent and listened intently. You could say he was the first superstar the country ever knew.
In the 1930s his voice, though cultured and sounding a bit uppity, was the soothing salve of confidence for a frightened nation, a father figure, during the Great Depression assuring everyone that all will soon be well. And once war broke out in the 1940s that same confident voice convinced Americans we would prevail against our enemies when at first that was no such certainty.
His days were the best of all times during the worst of all times.
He not only talked the good talk, as they say these days, but he walked the good walk. His programs – social security, Wall Street reform, and a myriad of alphabet agencies – brought the country back onto its feet. During the war his decisive leadership guaranteed an Allied victory against evil in Europe and Asia.
He holds a hallowed place in my mind. No president since faced as many dreadful challenges as FDR. I consider him among the five greatest presidents ever – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt are the other four. We will not see his likes again.
It is for that reason that I am uncomfortable with the fact that the nation celebrates King’s birthday and not FDR’s. No question that King was a great man and served this nation well. But his accomplishments were almost entirely in one important field. He helped destroy the ugly barriers to black equality in the country. That is good.
When compared to the worldwide accomplishments of FDR however, he stands some distance behind in achievements. Somehow FDR’s greatness was lost in the post WWII years as American politics was tangled with awkward partisanship, a series of petty wars and the civil rights movement.
MLK has roads and schools in practically every major city named for him. That is fine. But most of the edifices named Roosevelt were dedicated to the memory of Theodore, not Franklin, except for the East Side Highway in New York City and state parks in Georgia and New York.
Shouldn’t we honor the greatest president in the last century with something more – at least make his birthday, January 30, a national holiday?
I am reminded of the story often told about the man standing on the roadside as the FDR funeral cortege passed. The man was weeping profusely as though he had lost a member if his family. A passerby noticed the crying man and asked, “Did you know the president?” The tear-drenched man said, “No, but he knew me.”
There are not many presidents who could have elicited such a response.